Since their foundation in 1971 in Vienna the
world famous Alban Berg Quartet (ABQ) has been prolific in the
recipients of over thirty prestigious international awards.
In 2005 the quartet suffered the anguish of the death of
their violist Thomas Kakuska who played on this collection
of Beethoven’s ‘Late String Quartets’. The ABQ have now secured
the services of violist Isabel Charisius. Although not afraid
to explore the more adventurous and challenging with works
from composers such as Berio, Lutoslawski and Schnittke the
ABQ are renowned for their sterling interpretations of the
Austro-German Classical and Romantic masters: Haydn, Mozart,
Schubert and Beethoven.
Clearly not everyone will share the same opinion as the producers
at EMI Classics as to which recordings warrant inclusion
as a ‘Great Recording of the Century’. Everyone will have
their own preferences and I have read several reviewers disputing
the merits of various chosen recordings. There can,
however, be only a very small number of music-lovers who
are unable to appreciate the remarkable standard of performance
on offer here from the ABQ.
There is no doubting the monumental and often daunting nature
remarkable late string quartets. Eminent music writer David
Ewen expressed the view that, “Here we confront a new
manner of voice treatment, a new approach to structure, a
new concept of lyricism and thematic development together
with the most daring progressions, modulations and discords.” Despite
all the scholarly research undertaken over the years I note
that there is still some disagreement on the actual composition
dates of some of these scores.
The first work on the set is the four movement String Quartet No.
12, Op. 127. This was dedicated
to Prince Nikolas Galitzin and first performed in March
1825. The ABQ are splendidly paced in the opening movement
and right from the opening bars one becomes aware of their
impeccable security of ensemble. A sense of the divine
and the sublime is communicated by the ABQ in the adagio and
in the easygoing scherzo they never press unnecessarily
providing an apt spontaneity. The finale is alert
and robust with conspicuous rhythmic control.
From 1825-26 the String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130 cast in six
movements is again dedicated to Prince Galitzin. The first
performance of this score was in Vienna in March 1826
with the Große Fuge used as its original final movement.
It was performed in April 1827 with its present final movement;
Beethoven’s last ever composition for string quartet. In
the opening movement the ABQ provide steadfast control throughout
Beethoven’s myriad emotional states and in the short presto I
sensed a striking aloof aggression in their playing. The
Austrians make sense of the contrasting demands of the unusual andante and
in the short movement alla danza tedesca they provide
a swirling dance-like nature to the music. There is soulful
playing of a highly reverential nature in the cavatina and
I especially enjoyed the interpretation of the march-like
figures at 3:47-4:23 (CD1, track 9). The tempo in the finale, allegro is
well selected and one senses relentless probing beneath Beethoven’s
On the second CD the opening work is the Große Fuge, Op. 133 which
was composed 1825-26 and dedicated to Archduke Rudolph. The Große Fuge was
originally the final movement of the String Quartet No. 13, Op. 130.
The ABQ communicate their understanding of Beethoven’s bewildering sound-world
with a robust intensity that is strikingly dramatic. The remarkable combination
of Beethoven and the ABQ leaves the listener exhausted.
Completed in 1826 and cast in seven movements the String Quartet
No. 14, Op. 131 was dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim.
In the opening movement the ABQ are extremely serious and
provide a feeling of intense yearning. One feels the absolute
concentration and open-hearted penetration of the Viennese
ensemble in the second movement allegro with playing
of affectionate tenderness in the very short allegro
moderato. In the lengthy andante the ABQ bring
a compassionate vulnerability that they unfold with telling
fluency. In the presto they are exciting and bold
yet always in control. I was struck by their well thought
out tempos in the brief adagio where nothing is
forced and everything seems fresh and astonishingly vital.
In the final allegro there is alert playing of authority
and of commitment.
The third and final disc commences with the String Quartet No.
15, Op. 132 composed in 1825 and dedicated to Prince
Nikolas Galitzin. The premiere was given in November 1825.
This is a massive work that plays typically for
over forty minutes. The ABQ offer radiant playing of passion
and sensibility with Beethoven’s often oppressive and unresolved
anxieties fully expressed in the opening movement. I was
impressed with their refined, gracious and responsive interpretation
in the allegro ma non tanto. There is magisterial
playing in the epic slow movement molto adagio where
they communicate an inspired solemnity. The Austrians are
bright and sparkling in the short alla marcia, assai
vivace and they provide a remarkable depth of feeling
with playing of great dignity in the finale.
The concluding work is the four movement String Quartet No. 16,
Op. 135. Beethoven dedicated the score to Johann Wolfmayer
and the first performance was given in March 1828. In the
opening allegretto the ABQ provide determined energy
and rhythmic bounce and in the syncopated vivace they
convey a fidgety and unsettled character. There is playing
of a devout quality in the third movement that provides a
sense of serenity in this one of Beethoven’s biggest challenges.
In the technically demanding and emotionally draining final
movement I was greatly impressed with the ice cool splendour
that the Austrians blend with security of control.
The ABQ were recorded during live performances in 1989 at the Mozartsaal
in Vienna and the digital sound quality is first class. There
is enthusiastic audience applause at the end of each work
but nothing else to worry about.
Over the years there have been many excellent interpretations of these
Beethoven masterworks for string quartet from many
of the world’s greatest chamber ensembles and
many of us have our own favourite version in our collections.
In addition to these live 1989 Vienna recordings from ABQ
the alternative accounts most prominent in the catalogues
are from: the Aeolian on Decca; the Petersen
on Capriccio; the New Budapest on Hyperion; the Gabrieli
on Decca; the Lindsay on ASV; the Emerson on Deutsche
Grammophon and the Italian on Philips. The historical 1932-41
Vienna mono recordings from the Busch Quartet have accumulated
countless admirers over the years. It appears that the Busch
recordings are still available on Pearl GEMS0053. I
have not personally heard the accounts but causing considerable
critical attention is the award-winning and top-selling set
from the Takács Quartet on Decca 4708492.
In addition to these superb live recordings from the ABQ on EMI Classics
I have been an admirer of the sets from both the Italian
Quartet and the Emerson String Quartets.
Italian Quartet accounts are available on Philips 'Duo' across
two volumes 454 711-2 and 454 712-2. Although recorded nearly
forty years ago - 1967-69 - in Switzerland they still sound
exceptionally fine. The Italians are undoubtedly stylish with
exceptional musicianship and that comforting feeling of unity
gained from their years of experience. The tempos from the
Italians are on the measured side together with a clear and
smooth tone which is acknowledged as one of their major assets.
versions from the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon 'Trio'
474-341-2 were recorded at the American Academy and Institute
of Letters in New York, 1994-95. The Emersons demonstrate awesome
energy and a robust character throughout. Displaying a cultivated
eye for detail everything seems to fit together so securely.
The Emersons have the innate ability to shape each of the quartets
with a sure sense of direction in playing of sensitivity balanced
with convincing expression.
are truly Great Recordings of the Century. I would
be completely content to have these performances of Beethoven’s
late string quartets as the only set in my collection.
EMI Great Recordings Of The Century